Video of the Week: Eastern Sprints 2017 – Harvard vs. Yale

If you caught my Instagram story yesterday then you saw the last 50m or so of this race from the beach where we were all watching from. Seeing both coxswains celebrate was so cool but man that feeling when you find out you came in second is the worst. Been there, experienced that. Still, that sprint by Harvard was fantastic and they should definitely be proud of that race. Congrats to Yale – can’t wait to see them throw down at IRAs.

(Alternatively … I was just talking to someone who said they thought the Harvard coxswain didn’t celebrate, rather the splash at the end was from him throwing his cox box in the water because it didn’t work during the race. “Big if true”, as they say. But seriously though, that sucks if that was the case but let that be a cautionary reminder to everybody – check your cox boxes before you launch and always have a spare on hand).

Top 5 Most Important Things to Know on Race Day

Got a great question from a novice coxswain the other day that asked what the most important things were to know/remember on race day (excluding your race plan and lineup). Pretty simple question overall but what I liked about it was the PS at the end: “I asked my coach and he said (completely seriously) the only important thing I need to remember is to finish ahead of [a rival team]. I didn’t want to be annoying and ask again but he didn’t really answer my question so … help?”.

C’mon coaches. Do better.

Related: Race skills: Race warmups

Excluding your race plan and lineup, which you should know well in advance, here are the most important things you need to know or find out on race day.

Traffic pattern

The worst time to find out that there’s a left hand traffic pattern instead of a right hand pattern is when you’re on the water warming up. (Saw that happen in Philly a couple years ago … it almost didn’t end well.) Make sure you’re familiar with the traffic pattern and any nuances, like shallow spots, pinch points, bridge arches you can’t go through, etc. before you launch so you’re not spending your warmup time hyperfocused on trying to figure out where to go.

If you get out on the water though and don’t know where you need to be or get confused by something, ask. There are officials, coaches, etc. in launches on the water who will answer whatever questions you have but they can’t help you if they don’t know there’s a problem. They’re not going to be annoyed or think you’re stupid for saying something but I can promise you that they will be super pissed if you don’t ask and then they have to chase you down to tell you to get off the course, you’re on the wrong side, etc. because at that point, not only are you potentially interfering with a race in progress, you’re putting yourself, your crew, and the other crews in danger.

When in doubt, speak up and ask for clarification.

Warm up pattern

This is in a similar vein to the traffic pattern. I’ve been on courses where you launch at the finish line and warm up parallel to the course as you row to the starting line and I’ve been on courses where you launch above the starting line, row down parallel to the course, do a short loop below the finish line, and then row back up the same side you came down to get back to the start. Knowing the traffic pattern doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing the warmup pattern so this is another thing to make sure you are 100% clear on before you launch.

If you’re able to practice the day before your race, use that time to familiarize yourself with the water, landmarks, etc. so that when you’re going out for your race, again, you’re not wasting your warmup time by trying to figure out where to go.

Official race (and weigh-in) time

99.9% of the time these days, race time = cell phone time (because unlike watches, your cell phone’s not going to slow down time as the battery dies). At the earliest you can probably ask your coach what time your race is on Thursday of that week. At the latest, particularly if there’s concerns about weather, you should find out by Friday afternoon. It’s on you though to go directly to your coach and ask for this information – don’t wait for them to give it to you. Even if they say “I’ll find out and let you know”, you’ve still gotta be the one to follow up. There’s a lot to do on race day and it’s easy for something like this to slip their mind.

This also applies to weigh-ins, particularly and especially if racing has been delayed and as a result, so have weigh-ins. I think USRowing altered the rule as a result of that fiasco at Youth Nats a few years ago but regardless, if you’re getting weighed in or you’re coxing lightweights who need to weigh in, you need to know when the weigh-ins are happening, where they’re at, how many chances they’ll get to weigh in (sometimes there’s a limit of two times before you’re ineligible to race), and what the time frame is (i.e. no later than 2hrs before race time).

Lane and Bow Number

One time when I was doing stake boats a crew rowed up to the start without a bow number but pretty confidently spun into my lane so I just assumed they were in the right place. A minute or so later another crew rowed up and said “you’re in our lane”. The coxswain was like “oh sorry, I wasn’t sure what lane we were in so I just decided to go here” (as if that’s a practical solution) before turning around to ask me what lane she was in. I had no idea and it took a few minutes for the officials to figure out too, which ended up delaying the start of the race.

When you get your race time from your coach, make sure you also get the lane number and grab your bow number, if you’re using them (most big regattas do, sometimes smaller races or duels don’t). Most duel races (especially in college) will do the lane draw at the coaches and coxswains meeting so there’s no excuse for not knowing where to go.

The kicker with that coxswain, and the reason it took awhile for the officials to figure out where they were supposed to be, was that their race was the one before the one they were trying to line up for. Know your race time, know your lane number.

Launch time

There’s a fine balance in knowing when to launch. Too soon and you’ll end up sitting on the water for awhile (which at best, means your muscles cool down and at worst, you’ll be stuck in the elements, which means excess time in the blistering sun or freezing ass cold) or too late and you’ll have to rush up to the start and sacrifice getting a proper warm up in. I talked about determining when to launch in the “race warmups” post linked at the top so check it out for more info on that.

My personal preference is to be shoving off the dock about 40 minutes before race time – I think that tends to give me enough time to run through our warmup, get a quick drink, and then get locked on to the stake boats with 2-3 minutes to spare so the crew can have some quiet time before the race starts.

All of these things are discussed in the coaches and coxswains meeting but if you miss it or there isn’t one, find an official and ask them the specifics for each of these. They’re there to answer your questions so don’t be shy about talking to them. If you don’t have USRowing officials (who wear blue shirts, navy jackets, and khaki pants at every race), look for “regatta headquarters” and ask someone in there. If they don’t know, they’ll be the best people to point you towards someone who does.

Related: What happens at a coaches and coxswains meeting?

Also, for the novices in particular, if you haven’t yet, check out the two posts linked above and at the start of the post. There’s a ton of information in there that, if you haven’t figured most of it out by this point in the season, will definitely help you out as we enter the last few weeks of racing.

Question of the Day

Hi! Do you have any suggestions for what my boat can do about our struggles coming out of a start? We’ll usually do a start 6 and a high 20/25, but when we need to lengthen out to get to  race pace (because we can’t hold a 42 SR for the whole 2000m) we seem to lose a lot of energy and ground on other boats. What can we do to come out of a start more smoothly? My boat is fairly strong and it’s not that we’re dropping from a 1:35 to a 1:50 because we can’t hold a lower split, but we just don’t know how to lengthen out/get a ratio shift that’s more smooth and even. Calling a lengthen 10 doesn’t help. Thanks!

Unless the ratio is actually that out of whack off the start, a ratio shift is the wrong approach.

Related: How do you call a ratio shift to control and stop the rush without lowering the SR? Is it even possible?

Have you tried doing a sub-settle and then settling again to your base pace? This has always worked well for my boats (both coxing and coaching) when we’ve had similar issues. If we’re starting high (in the 40s) and trying to get to a 34-35, more often times than not it’d feel like we were putting the brakes on in order to hit the 34, causing us to lose ground and momentum, rather than just gradually lengthening out to it while still maintaining the power we had in the high strokes. Once we tried doing a sub-shift to a 38ish and then 5-7 strokes later shifting again to base, that seemed to alleviate a lot of the issues.

Related: The Language of the First 500

Even before we started incorporating the sub-shifts, we’d spend a lot of time on the transition during practice, not just on the strokes themselves but on the calls too. For me the focus was always on the last three strokes of the high strokes and the first stroke out of the shift, just making sure my calls were clear and on point so that first stroke was smooth but still deliberate and powerful. If I was sloppy here I could feel the drop in energy over the next few strokes. Another point of emphasis was on staying loose – if you’re tense then you’re not going to be able to flow in sync with the boat, which was one of the things that contributed to that “hitting the brakes” feeling for my crews.

Related: Getting off the line with world class speed

Talk with your coach and try to make this a point of practice each week. One of my coaches always had us do starts at the end of practice when we were tired and more likely to row with not-the-greatest technique, which actually helped a lot because it made us focus more on staying loose and taking clean strokes. I think making that snap transition between fatigued from AT pieces to clear-headed and calm before doing a start also helped us manage our adrenaline better during races, which played into that shift down to base pace being smoother and less frantic.

Race plans: Making moves

What is a move? Or, rather, what is it not? A move isn’t some random burst of hard strokes that you take because you don’t know what else to say and you know you’ve gotta say/do something. Those arbitrary power tens you call with little to no context? That’s not a move. What a move is is a part of the larger overall strategy (aka … your race plan) that gets you from Point A to Point B, which means they’ve gotta be executed with intention and a bit of forethought.

In my race plans we’ve always included two planned moves – one around 1000m (the stereotypical “20 at 1000m”) and another towards the latter half of the 3rd 500m. We had a third ten or fifteen stroke burst in our back pockets for the first thousand if we needed it but we avoided using it unless absolutely necessary – i.e. we had the lead and needed to do something to fend off a charging crew or we were in a position to get even or take the lead and knew we’d have the psychological advantage in the second half if we did it before 1000m.

Another thing that moves accomplish is helping keep the crew committed to the larger goal of the piece at vulnerable points during the race. You should obviously be feeding them information throughout that keeps everyone on the same page but a secondary purpose of a move is to act as a rallying point for the rowers. This was our basis for that move in the 3rd 500 – we knew that if the race was competitive then we’d need to make a move here to set us up for the sprint but there were times when, based on what I was seeing and sensing, I’d call it for nothing more than pure commitment to the (wo)man in front of you, the team, yourself, etc. We almost always accomplished the goal of getting even, getting our bow ball in front, etc. but this is an example of how phrasing it can have a big impact on how effective it is. Don’t be all business all the time and forget about the people is what I’m getting at.

As you get more experienced (and your listening skills adapt to the noise of the race course) you’ll be able to start predicting and picking up on when the crews around you are making moves, which gives you the significant advantage of being able to counter it with one of your own. There are few things more satisfying than seeing a crew start a move, waiting a couple strokes, and then laying down a solid 20 of your own to put them back in their place. I say “seeing” too because you’re not always going to hear the move being called. Sometimes you might but you should rely on sight more than sound because silent moves are a thing and any coxswain worth their weight will know what a difference they can make if the other crew(s) don’t pick up on it.

An important point to remember is that the effort you’re putting into your move has to be maintained on that 11th stroke (or whatever stroke follows the last one in the burst). If you have a really effective move but follow it up with a couple mediocre strokes, whatever advantage you gained is gonna be lost and you’ll end up taxing your body even more in the process. I’ll try to make a call or two about this as we near the end of those strokes, usually something simple like “maintain it now” on the first stroke after the move, “no sag, sustain the effort…”, etc.

Related: All about Power 10s

Like I said earlier, we usually included at least two planned moves while keeping it in mind that we might do three total based on how the race evolved in the early part of the piece. That “unplanned” move wasn’t technically unplanned but I knew that if I needed to use it, it wasn’t gonna catch the crew off guard and create unnecessary chaos. That’s what can/will happen though if you start using power tens disguised as “moves” as a fallback when you’ve got nothing else to say. Unplanned moves tend to be reactionary in response to another crew’s increase in speed or like I said earlier, as a competitive tactic to get your bow ball in front or to reel the other crew back in and prevent them from increasing their lead.

There’s lots of good examples of moves in the recordings I’ve posted but a great example is the one below (starting at 1:50ish) from the recording I posted of UW vs. Cal’s duel in 2009 (the second recording in this post). I’ve included the original video below the recording too, where you can hear AND see Katelin calling this move and the impact it had on UW’s position relative to Cal.